Why We Need A Broader Tent

The current paradigm of success — that it is best measured by outward appearances, grades, trophies and prestigious college acceptances — is not without merit. It stresses persistence, hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility.

However, our over-reliance, I would say singular reliance, on this narrow vision of success has placed enormous stress on students and parents. When we are preoccupied with external markers of success, it is easy to lose sight of the internal skills that are far more predictive of success out in the world. In real life, high SAT’s don’t hold a candle to a robust sense of self and a toolbox full of coping skills. High external achievement with underdeveloped internal resources is a recipe for disaster because it is high performing kids who are most likely to find themselves under pressure. They have worked overtime cultivating the skills that make them look successful while too often ignoring the skills known to make them successful — self-management, self-esteem and resilience to name a few.  

And if this narrow paradigm of success has burdened some kids, it has marginalized a far greater group of students. For kids whose learning style is different —whose talents, skills, interests and capacities lie outside the rigorously academic — we also have high rates of stress and emotional problems. Who will fix our cars, write our symphonies or build our infrastructure if we don’t start valuing a wider range of talents?

Parents are increasingly aware of the toll that their stressed, addled and exhausted children are paying. In increasing numbers, parents have begun questioning the value of an arms-race mentality around education. They wonder whether all their attempts to give their children “ a leg up” are in fact crippling them. They are shocked by how many kids are cheating, frightened by how many are abusing drugs, and terrified by the rising rates of depression, anxiety, self-mutilation and suicide.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 10% of kids are functionally impaired and 20% show significant clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety.[i] While certainly there are many factors responsible for what has become an epidemic of emotional problems, the fact is that the majority of students name “school” as the single greatest stressor in their lives.[ii] This is quite different from the long-standing most frequently rated stressors of family or peers. Soaring rates of emotional problems among our young people are disturbing enough in their own right, but they are also harbingers of even greater problems as these children grow up to be university students, workers, partners and parents themselves.

The needs of children are no secret. There is a developmental arc to childhood and adolescence. We need to keep our eye on this arc. Young children need security and encouragement; middle age children need friends and interests; teens need to work on issues of identity and independence; and all kids need love, support and structure. Providing environments that support healthy emotional as well as academic growth makes it more likely that we will see kids who are not diverted from their job of becoming engaged, reasonably happy, functioning members of society. It also makes it more likely that they will be able to fully develop their particular interests and skills.

Challenge Success, a project of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, was developed to help schools, parents and students rediscover and implement a saner and more accurate view of success. We are not interested in finger pointing or blame. The problems our children face are systemic and will only be solved when all agencies that work with kids are part of the solution. We believe that success is broad and that every child has interests, skills and capacities that are valuable and worth developing. We are working towards a broader tent for children in our schools, homes and communities. To this end, we work with schools throughout the country to promote best practices for engagement with learning. We work with parents to discuss, instruct and practice those strategies known to promote coping skills and healthy child development. And we work with students to make their voices heard. 

Challenge Success refuses to accept the false dichotomy that in order to be successful children have to be physically run into the ground and emotionally disengaged from themselves, their families and their work. We know far too much about promoting healthy child development to continue to tolerate the myth that success is a straight and narrow path with childhood sacrificed in the process. Go to our website and choose one of theSample Best Practices that is not being followed at your child’s school and call the school to set up a discussion or parent education night. Every one of us has to take responsibility for driving change.

Our kids have had enough of the wrong things and too little of the right things like sleep, play and time for reflection. Life inevitably holds enough unavoidable stressors. Going to school everyday shouldn’t be one of them.


[i] Blueprint for Change” Research on Child and Adolescent Mental Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 2001

[ii] KidsHealth KidsPoll, October 12, 2005.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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